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The New Trend in Web Development: Keeping It Simple

Web development is changing. Again! Here's how: The Modern Web What people call "the modern web" began to take shape in the e...

Cristian Tabacitu
Cristian Tabacitu

Web development is changing. Again! Here's how:

The Modern Web

What people call "the modern web" began to take shape in the early 2010s, with the rise of advanced JavaScript frameworks like Angular, React, and Vue.js. Following the lead of devs that build enormous apps at Facebook, Netflix and Google, more and more web devs started incorporating big, complex tools and frameworks. For big apps, then smaller and smaller apps, devs used these tools to help manage complexity, and create user interfaces that were at the time difficult to built or maintain. Along with these frameworks came the use of NPM (Node Package Manager) for managing libraries and dependencies, and bundling tools like Webpack to put everything together. This approach helped web devs do more and clean up their front-end code, but it also brought some problems. Web apps started to become really complex to build. "Becoming a developer" no longer meant learning HTML & CSS & JS, but learning HTML, CSS, JS, NPM, Webpack/Vite/etc, Angular/React/Vue etc. The "best way to build web apps" shifted from one year to another, as new JS frameworks and tools launched and become popular. And as new paradigms were invented to work around the shortcomings of the modern web (eg. build SPAs but have them SEO-friendly; bundle your JS, but not load it all at once). It wasn't easy for everyone to keep up with these changes, and not all users had a great experience. The "modern web" wasn't one solution, it was a myriad of solutions, where most made sense for huge projects, but were used on small and medium projects too.

Personally... I didn't love it. I've tried it. I've used it in client projects where the stack was mandatory. I've even used it on passion projects to "understand the appeal". But it never stuck with me. When using any or all of the tools trending at the time, I could never say "Yes, this is my favorite stack, I can use this for 80% of the apps I build.". Quite the contrary, when I went back to a project using the "old way" of doing things... it was a breath of fresh air. I loved the simplicity of it, and how I can go back to a project 4 years later and still enjoy working on it.

And it's easy to understand why: 99.9% of the projects we build will never be the next Facebook or Netflix or Google. So using the tools they use is not only overkill, it's counter-productive. Things that make perfect sense at that scale became trendy, yes: front-end frameworks, more abstractions, SPAs, build tools, bundling, compiling. The logic went... "If their tools work at that scale, then for sure they will work at our smaller scale, right?" Eeeh... not so fast. This approach, known as the "modern web," added complexity the projects from the start. It made it more difficult to get started, more difficult to keep up, more difficult to maintain. Sure, it's easier if you work in a team of 15 devs, but... how many of us work in a team of 15 devs? Sure, Netflix can re-write a module in another framework next year, but you don't have Netflix's budget! How will you convince your client to pay for a re-write... just because you don't like the framework any more? You can't!

The Shift to Minimalist Web Development

A new trend has been forming for the past few years, and it's all about making things simpler. I haven't found the term for it... maybe we can call it "the post-modern web", but I'd rather call it "minimalist web development". Here's what's changing:

  1. Simple Code: We're going back to basics with HTML, CSS, and just enough JavaScript. This makes websites easier to build and faster for users.
  2. No Heavy Frameworks: Instead of using big JavaScript tools like Angular, React or Vue, this new approach uses plain Javascript or simpler, smaller libraries like Alpine or HTMX.
  3. No Bundling Tools: Bundling made things complex, difficult to work with and debug. Right now, people are finding ways to skip those complicated tools, so front-end code becomes easy to manage again and we take advantage of the progress HTML and HTTP have made.
  4. Fewer Dependencies: Ever since the LeftPad fiasco, people have started seeing their NPM dependencies as a liability. Reducing reliance on third-party libraries not only improves performance, but also mitigates potential security risks, and people have been a little more careful in selecting dependencies.
  5. Server-Side Rendering (SSR): After being in the SPA camp for years, people have started to come back to server-side rendering. SSR is now favored over client-side rendering, benefiting both website performance and search engine optimization (SEO).
  6. Static Sites Generation: For sites where dynamic content is not essential, static site generators are increasingly popular, because they come with better speed and security.
  7. Progressive Enhancement: This principle focuses on developing core webpage functionality first and then progressively enhancing the experience for browsers that support advanced features. PWAs are the best example of this, and more and more people are building PWAs.

More and more, the individual trends above unify into one central idea... keeping things simple. Favoring simplicity over complexity. Building things in a way that is good now and will be good in 5 years too. And I absolutely LOVE that. As a founder and CTO, those are important considerations in how I choose my stack. And now that more people favor the same way... good things will happen. More and more tools will be available to us that we can actually use and incorporate in our long-term projects. More and more people will come, with good ideas (and bad) and we'll all benefit from it. This is exciting!

Why the Shift Matters

This shift to simpler web development is a response to how complicated things had become. It's about making building and maintaining web apps easier and more fun. About making websites run fast (yes), but also making sure they'll be working (and pleasure to work with) in 3 years or in 5 years. It's not just about cutting back on the fancy stuff, it's about making a better apps, both builders and the Internet itself.

If you can't tell by now... I'm excited about this trend. In my opinion, this is exactly what web development needed. It got bloated for a few years... now it's trying to cut back on the unnecessary tech and practices everybody adopted, to reach a better middle-ground. For those who have been in web dev longer and seen trends come and go, it should also be a breath of fresh air. It means we're actually making progress. We're navigating the ups and downs of the technologies, yes. But it's all coming together in a better form 💪 For those who have only been building web apps for the past 5-7 years... I actually don't know? How do you feel about this shift?

If you're interested in more articles about this "minimalist web development" let me know in the comments below. Happy to hear what you think about it. If you've noticed the shift already or are just now hearing about it.

Thanks for the attention. Cheers!

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Reactions & Comments

What do you think about this?

Hi @christian, thanks for this informative article. I've been in this field since about 1996 so I've seen a multitude of changes. It's nice that we're kind of going back to the origins, when we just used JS where it was needed not everywhere!! As a back-end developer who also has to venture into the front-end it makes my dev life easier if there's no too much on the front - I find it easier to do as much of the processing on the server as is feasible, thus pushing only what's required to the browsing device. I'd love to read more articles like this, thank you Sir :)
So am I, Martin - this shift was long overdue if you ask me 😀 Thanks for the feedback, will do!
In our decade of website development, we've found that simple one-language programs run best and longest without intervention. The best action a developer can take is to master one coding language and then leverage the best frameworks at that time. Thanks for the great article @christian.

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